Indebted is how I feel towards activists like Gregg Robinson and Rick Nadeau and Tom Hayden, for they all have addressed the problems of the anti-war movement within the past week. Robinson wrote here “Why no mass anti-war movement: the case of San Diego”, Nadeau gave a lengthy reply to Robinson, and Hayden just wrote, “How the Peace Movement Can Win,” in the most recent Nation magazine (Dec. 17, 2007).It is because of these three writers – and they are all activists – that I am inspired to join this debate, as an activist and not as an armchair theorist – about the direction of the peace movement. We need this debate.
Recent efforts to examine why today’s peace movement has not generated enough of a mass presence sufficient to bring the Iraqi war and occupation to an end, have touched a nerve of those who worry about the nature of the peace movement, its current state and direction. In looking at these efforts contained here and in The Nation, and drawing out the strengths and weaknesses of each, it is hoped that this needed debate gets pushed along.
Hayden: Peace Movement Must Use the Election to Counter Hawkish Democrats
Tom Hayden, in “How the Peace Movement Can Win,” tackles the problem of the direction of the peace movement on a national level, and argues that the peace movement can “win” by taking advantage of the political opening approaching due to the Presidential race. The peace movement can do this by jumping into what will be thousands of campaigns of voter registration and getting out the vote efforts. He wants this but only after the Presidential contenders are pressured into making or joining peace in Iraq pledges. Hayden, by bemoaning the fact that the major Democratic Presidential contenders all have taken hawkish positions on the Iraq war, links the peace movement not directly to the Democratic Party but to the electoral process itself.
If President Bush withdraws 25,000 to 30,000 troops in the Spring of 08, and if the next President – assuming it’s one of these neo-Hawkish Democratic contenders – takes out another 75,000 the next year, the peace movement would face the challenge of being against a war that was winding down. The war, Hayden sees, would devolve in a low-profile war with American casualties having declined.
Can anything be done to avert this scenario? Actually, yes. The peace movement does have an opportunity to solidify public opinion behind a more rapid withdrawal – regardless of what the national security advisors think.
Peace advocates will likely have the best-funded antiwar message in history during the coming election year. Tens of millions of dollars will be raised for voter education and registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns through the 527 committees, which disseminate election messages independent of partisan candidates. …(Democrats) will have to contend with the frustration of millions of antiwar voters, and their nominee will be pledged, in rhetoric at least, to end the war.
Backed by real resources, skilled organizers and volunteers across the electoral battlegrounds of 2008 will be able to identify, register and turn out voters through door-to-door work combined with radio and television spots.
Organizers of this independent campaign have access to a $100 million fund during the 2008 election, much of which will be used for antiwar messages. The money comes from antiwar unions, like SEIU, and from major progressive donors like George Soros. The challenge, according to Hayden, is for the peace movement to become deeply involved in the decisions of this anti-war message, to work as a balance against the messages from the candidates, who are influenced by hawkish consultants and national security wannabees. For him, the peace movement must go after the “ambivalent voters,” ignoring assertions by people like Robinson that the war already has wide-spread opposition among American voters.
… The peace movement has an opening to exert its influence: it can demand a role in the independent campaign as a condition of enlisting its legions of local peace activists. The challenge will be to draft an antiwar formula that unites the peace forces and progressive Democrats rather than one that depresses vast numbers of antiwar voters.
Hayden raises the issue of whether the independent campaign is controlled from the top or is significantly influenced by the thousands of antiwar volunteers likely to be organizing in their own locales.
The peace movement can succeed only by applying people pressure against the pillars of the war policy – public opinion, military recruitment and an ample war budget – through marching, confronting military recruiters and civil disobedience. The pillars have been eroding since 2004. The tactics that are most likely to accelerate the process are greater efforts at persuading the ambivalent voters. This is where the interests of the peace movement converge with (the independent campaign) operation.
A massively funded voter-identification and -registration drive and a get-out-the-vote campaign have enormous potential to tip not only the presidential election but also the scales of public opinion.
Advocating classic organizing techniques, Hayden argues that the antiwar movement must work within the independent campaign and that it requisition the resources needed to educate voters and involve them in house meetings.
The house meeting approach allows for voter education and participation on a scale that cannot be achieved by hit pieces or TV spots. It is also critical for cultivating grassroots leadership capacity for election day turnout and beyond.
Hayden fails to elaborate on his other tactics, such as “civil disobedience”.
Robinson & Nadeau Focus on the Reason for a Lack of “Mass” in the Peace Movement
While Hayden underscores the hawkish views of the leading Democratic contenders as the main problem facing the peace movement, Robinson and Nadeau address a wider range of factors of why there aren’t massive numbers of people involved in the antiwar movement. There is a general agreement of something called the “general malaise” that is holding people back.
Whether the lack of participation is from a disconnect with the war and its victims due to their marginalization, the lack of a draft, the current low-level of US casualties, an unsympathetic corporate media employing its own censorship, the general economic downturn – the credit crunch, the housing crunch, or the emotional hang-over from September 11th and the war on terror, a lack of genuine sympathy or solidarity with the Iraqi people or the insurgents, an over-reaching sympathy for Israel, a despair caused by spineless Democrats and the vanishing of a socialist vision, or any combination of them, these factors certainly contribute to some understanding of our current state.
But a deeper reality check is needed.
Robinson does this and cites the lack of a “middle mass” as the crucial element missing for a successful antiwar movement. He hints that a draft would have satisfied the missing connection with that mass. Nadeau pushes him harder to define this middle mass, and questions, rightfully so, whether the draft is really the missing part of the equation. Nadeau asserts that a self-censoring media, a despair on the left and hold-over emotions from 9/11 are also very important.
I want to go further and push on the reality button. Robinson says we already have the sector of activists needed for any movement, the folks he calls “the cadre” ; he states without too much elaboration that we already have these guys and girls on the national level; that on the local level the cadre are made up of the (over-taxed) leadership and members of the main peace group in San Diego, the Coalition for Peace and Justice. I differ on this point, but generally am encouraged and inspired by what both Robinson and Nadeau had to share.
Where Is the Mass? A Perennial Problem For All Movements
Movements, campaigns, organizing projects – all have this problem: how to connect with “the masses,” how to get people to meetings, demonstrations, elections, – how to get people to make that jump into activism out of their normal, everyday lives.
Robinson, in complaining about the lack of massive numbers involved in the antiwar movement, says we already have this mass, that we need a “middle mass” -; that opposition to the Iraqi war/ occupation is very wide spread — as wide spread as the public opinion was during the wars in Southeast Asia. This current opposition is unfortunately not too deep – but we need a middle sector that is open to what the cadre has to say and do.
But two things. I want to remind Robinson that in the run-up to the Iraqi invasion, there were massive protests, in America and throughout the world. There were several hundred thousand protesters massing in New York City a couple of times I recall. September 28th, 2002, was a international day of protest. 350,000 marched in London, for example. But the invasion happened anyhow, and the war and occupation has dragged on since March of ’03. This March it will be 5 years – longer than America was in World War II.
So there were massive numbers marching against the war before it began. But the size of those crowds have all but dissipated. Is it despair? We now know that the media – the big media – is holding a boycott of news or information about antiwar protests in this country. There is definitely a corporate media black-out of these protests, and we saw this on the last time we had a national day of protest – October 28th, a “National Day of Action”.
Not only was there this mass opposition in the run-up to the war, but since then, antiwar candidates – such as Howard Dean in 2004 – soared in popularity and middle-of-the-road candidates have had to take antiwar positions.
Corporate Media Blackout of Antiwar Protests
On that last day of national protest, it was observed then that “despite prominent news organization polls showing huge majorities of Americans with substantial discontent with the Iraq war and occupation, … “major news outlets treated this ‘National Day of Action’ as though it did not exist.” For example, despite the fact that 45,000 people braved the rain to demonstrate in New York City that day, there was no account of this in the New York Times national edition. 125,000 people demonstrated against the war that day, but the giant media simply and consciously did not tell the American people. People came out against the war in all kinds of places – see my post on this media blackout.
Robinson again equates the current wide spread opposition to the war as akin to that during the Vietnam war. My memory is different. It took years for public opinion to turn against that war. We were in Vietnam for fifteen years, not with high levels of troops, but certainly conducting a low-level war against the Vietnamese insurgents for many of those years. This went on until the big build-ups beginning in 1965 when President Johnson manipulated the country – much like Bush did recently – with the Tongin Bay “attack” – the triggering incident of alleged Vietnamese attacks on our destroyers off their coast. It would be ten years after that for the last combat soldiers and helicopters to leave.
Here, during the current war, wide-spread public opposition was turning against Bush’s policy by 2004. So actually, perhaps because of Vietnam (and the Vietnam Syndrome! – remember that?) public opposition to the war developed much sooner than during Vietnam, relatively speaking.
The second part of this is that Robinson makes the assertion, perhaps over-romanticizing our own youth abit, that, “It was relatively easy in the 1960s to turn out thousands of people in the streets. Wherever there was a university campus, there was a ready supply of people willing to take action.”
I’m not certain which campus Robinson was on or what he was smoking back then – because I remember something different – wait – I was on the same campus as he was! (Okay, disclaimer: Gregg Robinson and I both went to UC San Diego during the late sixties and were at many of the same meetings and demonstrations – we didn’t really get to know each other until a decade later. I graduated in 1970. Gregg stayed on and got more degrees. Plus I know he doesn’t smoke.)
Activist Cores & Foot Soldiers
During the late sixties, antiwar activists had some of the very same problems as today’s activists. We wondered how to attract more people, how to get more people involved. There is this myth that activism in the sixties was easier or simpler. And there were lots of protesters all the time. But not so. There was definitely a core of activists – actually several cores, split up depending on political strain (the anarchists, the Progressive Labor, the Trotskyites, the liberal democrats). And there were lots of foot soldiers – like me and Gregg. In our early twenties, not yet politically honed (I can hear Gregg saying ‘speak for yourself’). Plus, I wasn’t involved in the antiwar movement to get out of the draft, land like Nadeau and Robinson, I was involved because of the moral and political depravity of the war itself. In fact, I don’t recall anybody sitting around antiwar meetings and discussing that they were there because of selective service.
“Foot soldier” is not the best term, I know, especially when talking about antiwar activists – the word soldier being anathema to peace-niks, but that is what we were. We had the energy, we were open to what the core groups said and did, we ran around, distributing fliers, we were the bodies at the demos, the sit-ins. I didn’t go to too many meetings back then. But I appreciated that somebody did, the cadre, the core activists. They did go to meetings and figure out the logistics. I and dozens of other foot soldiers didn’t have the patience or time for all of that. We were the militants. We were on the frontlines. We were that “middle mass’ that Robinson now describes that we need.
Actually, the lack of progress in bringing the Vietnam War to an end, forced the sixties antiwar activists to up the level of militancy and confrontation in terms of tactical considerations. Administrators, corporate and military recruiters were physically confronted instead of simply being picketed. Sit-ins were held inside offices and classrooms and hallways, instead of mere rallies being held outside. There was a real sense that the anti-war movement had gone from protest to resistance.
Catastrophic Events Cause the Incidence of Activism
So back in Robinson, Nadeau and my college days, we had the activist cores and the foot soldiers. I don’t remember a wide-spread antiwar public opinion – but of course this was San Diego. It was different in more traditionally liberal or labor-oriented cities. Yet, over the course of the latter part of the decade of the sixties, the activists came to life even in conservative San Diego, and eventually, even here – or at least in pockets – opposition to the war developed.
Yet it was catastrophic events that changed things. Events like the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968. Because the cores and the foot soldiers already existed, the campus responded to the civil rights leader’s murder with the creation of a dozen of activist collectives – one of which moved off campus “to be more relevant” and published San Diego’s first underground newspaper – the Street Journal. It also successfully challenged a particular corrupt establishment within the city. It was Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia in May 1970 that caused the American education system to be shut down, as average, middle-of the road students united with the activist cores and foot soldiers and staged massive student sit-ins, strikes, shut-downs of college campuses across the country. It was Nixon’s escalation of the air war in May 1972 that also caused massive protests of students and young people. It was President Carter’s call for a military draft in 1979 that caused the overnight creation of a massive national anti-draft movement.
In contrast, allow me for a moment, in May 1971 – a group of committed antiwar activists, based at San Diego State and in Ocean Beach, had organized a militant action in San Diego – in an effort to duplicate a huge rally at the Naval Electronics Lab in Point Loma – which was blocked during a protest of 3,000 in May of 1970, just one year earlier. But there was no catastrophic event – as in May 1970 or as in May 1972 a year later. Only a couple hundred protesters showed up – to be greeted by equal numbers of police. Organizers felt it was a failure. The lesson here is, there was a core and even foot soldiers available in May ’71, but no common unifying event to glue it all together.
Now, of course, “catastrophic events” don’t occur by themselves or in a vacuum. And certainly, we live in different days than during Vietnam. For one, back in those days, there was a rising standard of living, whereas now, we’re facing a probable recession.
One point here is, that when these large events occurred, there were core groups of activists who could jump on the issues and organize responses.
Away With the Standard March Around Downtown San Diego
Robinson is critical of the standard peace march scenario here in San Diego. I don’t blame him. His criticism is in the context of attempting to link medical costs and lack of coverage with the costs of war, and that the plans for October 27 did not include any targets related to this issue. I join him in the general critique of San Diego’s standard peace action downtown. I also call for a new view in terms of tactics for the movement.
Yet demonstrations are always important – when they are needed, as in responses to catastrophic events. They are good in bringing like-minded people together and in building our own self-confidence. But to simply hold another rally at Horton Plaza and march around part of downtown is getting old and we need to rethink what we are doing.
The peace movement should use a whole range of tactics – and take examples from the old days – and from the new days. The peace movement – both nationally and locally – needs to view ourselves in the historic moment we are in. And as Hayden advises, we are in the run-up of the most important Presidential election in our country’s modern history. So we have to keep this in our collective craw. So, being involved somehow in the electoral process is important.
And there’s other tactics we should be using, as well, targeted leafleting, door-to-door campaigns as Hayden outlines, house meetings. I am not as negative as Robinson is on what he calls “net-roots”. I recall organizing a candlelit vigil at the beach over night via MoveOn.org’s web connections where over eighty people showed up. I only knew a handful.
What Do We Have?
Let’s get back to the central question at hand. If we don’t have a massive antiwar movement, what do we have?
Robinson says we already have the ‘cadre’. He cites the leadership and membership of the various activist organizations. The San Diego Coalition of Peace & Justice. Groups exist on a national level as well. ANSWER, United Coalition for Peace and Justice. Here is where we differ.
I’ve been to most of the antiwar demonstrations in San Diego over the past five years, including the rallies in the run-up to the invasion, and all of them since. I’ve also been involved in various organizing projects over these same years. And I’ve come to the conclusion that most people who go to activist events these days have gray hair! Gray hairs – veterans many of them of the sixties and seventies. But not that many young people.
Where Are the Youth?
This is the question to address. Why aren’t young people involved in the antiwar demonstrations in a greater numbers? Of course, there are young people involved. But at any one demo in downtown San Diego against the war, there is usually as many gray-hairs as young people – if not more. So, why aren’t college students involved in this peace movement? Why aren’t college students leading this entire freaking movement? At the local as well as national levels?
At least half the cadre, the core activists, should be young people. We don’t have the foot soldiers of yesteryear. Every movement for healthy change in any society needs the youth of that society. Youth – the young – must be involved in any social forces that promise to change the future. Young people need to be involved in running this peace movement. Youth have the energy, the lack of patience for bullshit, the endurance; they can take the risks that put a hesitation into gray-hairs’ militancy; they don’t have kids in college or at home, mortgages to pay, careers to risk.
So, without young people, we don’t have a fully developed cadre that Robinson speaks about. Without the youth, we can’t reach any “middle mass” .
The Movement Needs a Center
For Hayden, the movement’s center is in attaching itself to a nationally-based independent campaign that is involved in the 2008 campaign. He has no problem with this and ignores any analysis that concludes there are weaknesses in this route, with an implicit assumption that there is a sufficient center to our movement. Robinson doesn’t necessarily address this issue, but our peace movement needs a center, a locus that we know and can trust, and one that is not divided by organizational rivalries. There are two major antiwar organizations, ANSWER and UCPJ, and often they don’t work together. Actually, this divided movement reflects what occurred in the sixties/ seventies, as the Trotskyite left worked in one coalition and everyone else worked in another, despite the presence of other hard-line groups with their own agendas. Often, there would be a giant demonstration on one weekend, and another organized by the rival coalition, on the next weekend. Trust between the groups was difficult to come up with.
Today, we need a national center made up of individuals and groups that have forged together with the rest of us through a crucible of common and exceptional experience. In the sixties, Students for a Democratic Society played this role for students. After their demise, organizing around the “Chicago 8” also played this purpose. Today, groups need to set-aside their own agendas and act in the common interest. There needs to be a shake-up on the national level. The nation needs people who are progressive and well-respected to step forward and form this national center with or without current organizations dragged down by turf-wars. Young people and students need to be involved within this center, hopefully to be able to call groups on their organizational egos and playcards.
Once a national center is established, regional and local branches or coalitions can act in concert more thoroughly, especially if the national center is democratic and representative.
What to Do? Target the Young and the Media
Since the lack of youth is a problem and the fact that the corporate media is exercising a black-out, let’s target both. One is an internal contradiction and one is an external contradiction. Let’s go after the youth, the students. Let’s have county-wide antiwar demonstrations on the college campuses, one right after another, over a series of weeks. Let the gray-hairs come on the campuses, confront the students civilly; let’s have sit-ins by gray hairs on college campuses. This is a serious idea, one of those ideas that Robinson called for. If it takes the gray-hairs, the parents of college kids to incite college kids, so be it. We need the youth. We understand this, but they may not. Let’s take the antiwar movement to the campuses. Once the youth get involved in mass, the foot soldiers and cadre can be found, and we can take on the host of issues that Robinson outlined.
Let’s target the corporate media, for their compliance in the war, for their current blackout on the war and on those who oppose it. Let’s stage demonstrations right outside NBC’s Channel 10 downtown studios; let’s protest outside the Union-Tribune Mission Valley offices. Let’s go inside and request meetings with the editors.
Move From Protest to Resistance?
Four five years we’ve protested this war. The major Democratic Presidential candidates cannot pledge to withdraw occupation forces until their second term of office. The corporate media is blocking news and information about oppositional forces in getting out to the American public. The issues are not just about this war, or war with Iran, and the issue is not just about the future direction of the peace movement; the issue is about the future direction of the country, the future state of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and whether this nation will become a police state. The issue is whether this country will continue to be an Empire or whether its citizens can steer it into a democracy. Empire or democracy. This is the issue.
Is the peace movement ready to take higher risks? Is civil disobedience by massive numbers of protesters – as during the anti-nuke movement in the eighties- on the table? During the days of President Reagan’s nuke-mongering, there was a serious civil disobedience movement alive at nuclear weapons plants, at Air Force bases with nukes, at the San Diego Ballast Point Nuclear Submarine Base. Many activists were ready to get arrested to stop the nukes. And many did. Hundreds at a time. Are we ready yet?